Parts to build a cheap(ish) Linux Desktop PC?
April 14, 2006 9:08 AM   Subscribe

Looking for the component suggestions on what is the "sweet spot" as far as price/performance to build a cheap-ish desktop Linux PC. I've already got a great monitor and a KVM switch, just need to build the box. I'd like to keep the cost in the $500 range.

I'm currently taking courses for a RedHat Linux certification. I've got an old Thinkpad with Fedora Core installed on it to play with for the meantime. However it's really limited on disk space (9GB) and it's a bit pokey when using the GUI.

So I want to build a desktop (actually, it will go inside a cheap 4U 19" rackmount case I've got laying around) for linux playing. It's going to get Fedora Core also but I think eventually I'll move to SUSE when I finish the certification.

Although I've built many PC's it's been about 2 years since the last one and I haven't kept up with what's current in hardware. I've also never built one specifically for a linux installation.

I'm very concerned about getting hardware that has driver support in the currently released kernel. I do not want to be chasing down linux hardware drivers.

Checklist for what I'd like the desktop to have:

- Nvidia Video Card with VGA *AND* DVI output - I want to play with XGL.

- Ability to have multiple non-SCSI HDD's. I understand SATA is now prevalent instead of EIDIE - how many drives can you install per SATA controller?

- Gigabit ethernet.

- USB (I'm sure this is integrated on any recent motherboard)

So, after all that, I'm looking for a recommendation for:

Hard Drive(s)
Video Card
Power Supply

and any interface cards needed for features not integrated into motherboard (gigabit ethernet, for instance).
posted by de void to Computers & Internet (9 answers total)
You could scarcely avoid all these features with $500. Modern motherboards tend to have 2-4 SATA ports; gigabit ethernet is common, but many have "only" 100 Mbps (do you have the infrastructure for this to make a difference in practice?); you'll have USB ports out the wazoo.

Use New Egg's power search, and you'll have absolutely no trouble fulfilling these requirements with that budget. Check Fedora Core's (or whichever distro you plan on using) docs for details on supported hardware -- Nvidia supplies linux drivers, so you should be fine there, but some motherboard gigabit ethernet chips aren't supported. Nothing else is likeley to create issues.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 9:56 AM on April 14, 2006

You can install as many SATA drives as the motherboard has ports. There's no master/slave thing, it's point-to-point. If the motherboard has 4 SATA ports, you can plug in 4 drives. Besides, you can buy a PCI SATA controller for about $20 so even if the motherboard only had two SATA ports you could add more. Most motherboards these days have both parallel ATA (for CDROMs and the like) and serial ATA controllers.

In terms of linux drivers I'd say you'd have a hard time finding a motherboard from a site like newegg that *didn't* have full driver support. NVIDIA is going to be much more of a pain than anything else. ATI is no better though, perhaps worse. It really depends though on whether you are planning on gaming or just doing desktop 2D things.
posted by Rhomboid at 10:08 AM on April 14, 2006

I asked a question about building a modern PC a while ago, and was recommended a Epox 9NPA+ SLI Motherboard. I'm quite happy with it, and it has built in RAID that can work with the SATA drives. It has 4 SATA ports.

People claimed that RAID performance would be better in software, but I like the "hardware" solution because I can install operating systems on it. Of course, if you're going to be running Linux that probably won't be an issue.

It has a built in gigabyte Ethernet port, and lots of USB2 ports. Six I thin, and of course you can multiplex them anyway.

I just got two cheap 120 gb hard drives, which are mirrored right now. I was more worried about drive stability then performance. I got a cheapish socket 939 CPU, with plans to upgrade to something dual-core in the future.

I ended up spending about $700 total, but that's because I needed a new power supply (ATX 12v I think) and a new CD drive (I got a dual layer DVD burner) and figured I might as well get a new case while I was at it. I was even so out of date I needed new RAM to be compatible.

You might save money by getting an el-cheapo motherboard, though. This is definetly a tweaker board. It even has physical buttons for power and reset so no more need to sort the power switch pins with a jumper. And it has a 7-segment post code display. And sweet blue LEDs for no reason at all. :)
posted by Paris Hilton at 10:19 AM on April 14, 2006

ABIT KN8 + Athlon 64 3200+ $230 (after rebate)
250 GB Samsung Spinpoint P hard drive $85
2 x 512MB Corsair PC3200 memory $72
XFX GeForce 6500 video card $35 (after rebate)
Antec SmartPower 2.0 SP-500 500W power supply $69

This page asserts the mobo works under Linux. The mobo & CPU are really nice -- I'm tempted to get it myself, but I'm going to be trying to justify a Macbook Thin in a few months. The power supply and hard drive are both top notch, and the memory wholly adequate. I have no knowledge of the particular video card, but, like I said, Nvidia provides linux drivers.

You'll want a heatsink and CPU fan, too, and I omitted shipping, so the under-budgetness of this cheats a little.

Read the Ars Technica guides to get up-to-speed on current technologies and trade-offs.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 11:09 AM on April 14, 2006

In general, you're better off with Intel chipsets under Linux. You tend to run into subtle (and not-so-subtle) issues with other choices. VIA chipsets are particularly bad; they tend to have bugs, which the Windows drivers work around. But VIA doesn't tell the Linux community about them, so they can be problematic, espeically under heavy load. (ie, as a server). Intel chipsets are well-documented and well-understood by the open source community. You'll tend to get the best results if you stick with those.

For the same reason, NVidia graphic cards are generally the way to go... cheapies are fine, just make sure they're NVidia. They provide a binary driver package that works very well. ATI is very bad under Linux. Actually, ATI drivers in general tend to suck.

Overall, I would stay away from Athlons... they are faster, but you probably don't need that last 10%. You probably won't notice the speed difference, but I assure you most emphatically you'll notice instability. :)

Note, however, that if you're interested in experimenting with 64-bit Linux, Athlon is the way to do that. But I honestly don't know how well-supported the NVidia chipsets are under Linux. VIA is 'supported', but I've seen enough bugs and problems with their products that I just don't buy them anymore.
posted by Malor at 11:54 AM on April 14, 2006

Malor, do you have any citations about Athlon instability under Linux? I haven't tried it myself, yet, but I know they're popular with a lot of Linux users, and other than unavailability of 64-bit versions of some proprietary binaries (like the Flash player), I haven't heard of problems.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 3:21 PM on April 14, 2006

I have been running the AMD64 version of Gentoo for almost a year, haven't had any problems.
posted by brool at 5:54 PM on April 14, 2006

Tom's Hardware and Hexus are two websites I visit for hardware reviews, and they definitely help...there are a lot of choices out there.

for $500 dollars, you'll definitely need to be cost-conscious for your purchases. a dual-code processor is probably out of the picture (2.8Ghz pentium D's tend to go for about $250 -- worth it if you have the money, were you to ask me).

linux generally has good support for hardware, unless it's extremely new. even the open source drivers for graphics cards are pretty good (i'm using one right now for my ATI IXP integrated chipset).
posted by moz at 8:42 PM on April 14, 2006

I'll respectfully disagree with Malor about AMD chips. I've been running various Linux distros with AMD chips since the K6-2 was hot, with no issues.

I have had problems with ATI graphics cards. NVIDIA cards seem to cause fewer problems, if you don't have the latest version (which you won't, at your price point).

Drivers under Linux aren't the issue they were 2 years ago. Things are a lot better now. Still, it is worth checking before buying.

You might want to keep an eye on some of the tech bargain blogs for rebates and sales, especially on hard drives and RAM. I'm thinking of slickdeals, Ben's Bargains, techbargains or dealnews in particular.
posted by QIbHom at 8:19 AM on April 15, 2006

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